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July 26, 2009

Caramel Onion on a Stick: Eating 'The Big Tasty' — Walla Walla Sweets promise 'no tears'


Long story short: Walla Walla onions are so sweet and juicy they stand in for apples, coated with a shell of caramel and eaten on a stick (above) at the annual Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival, whose 25th iteration took place last weekend.

Tracy Dahl's ode to her favorite member of the genus Allium appeared on the front page of the July 15, 2009 Washington Post Food section; excerpts follow.


The six-pack of sweet onions arrived on my doorstep unannounced. Individually wrapped, each one was at least four inches in diameter and almost comically large. The onions were a gift from Whitman College, the small liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Wash., that I had just decided to attend -- and I had no idea what to do with them.

They hung out in my family's "fruit room," a cool area in our basement, until a friend suggested we slice them, brush them with oil and throw them on the grill to go with our burgers. We did, and they were so alluringly sweet and delicate that it was difficult to think of them as onions.

That was 12 summers ago in Portland, Ore. I spent the next four years living in Walla Walla, a place so steeped in onion culture that there's a storefront on Main Street called Onion World.

But I live in Alexandria now, and grocery stores in this area aren't as lucky. The sweets, a herald of summer in the Northwest, aren't readily available here. Sure, Vidalia onions have become ubiquitous, but nostalgia leaves me longing for those jumbo globes pulled out of Walla Walla dirt.

The sweets are a longtime tradition in the town of 30,000, nestled in the rolling wheat fields of southeastern Washington state. Their story began in the late 1800s, when a French soldier found a sweet onion seed on the island of Corsica and brought it to Walla Walla. The Italian immigrant farmers there were impressed with the onion's winter hardiness, and they began to cultivate it. Years of selecting each crop's sweetest and largest specimens for seed harvesting made "Walla Walla" synonymous with huge, sweet onions in much of the Pacific Northwest. The sweet was named Washington state's official vegetable in 2007; some of those Italian families that first nurtured it still live in the Walla Walla Valley of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

A few weeks ago, another box of onions landed on my doorstep. This time, I'd placed the order (see "How to Buy"), and I was ready.

I invited a friend and fellow vegetable enthusiast, Danielle, to come over for a cooking marathon, and we dug into my 40-pound box. She'd never tried a sweet before, and she was surprised how true to name even the raw slices were. They're so mild that some people chomp into them like apples.

There's some science behind this mild flavor. An onion's pungency is dictated by its pyruvic acid content, which is a byproduct of cutting into an onion and releasing its volatile sulfur compounds. Onions with a pyruvic acid content of more than 10 percent sting your eyes and burn your throat, but the Walla Walla sweets' acid content is closer to 2 to 3 percent, says Kathryn Fry, director of the onion festival. That, combined with the sweets' higher sugar and water content and the low level of sulfur in Walla Walla Valley soil, makes for one sweet, mild onion.

July 26, 2009 at 03:01 PM | Permalink


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I live in Wally world myself. We have a whole variety of different things we grow here, besides just onions. Grapes and further wine is one of our most popular commodities here of late. Peas, wheat, asparagus, you name it, we grow it. We also have one of the most beautiful "main streets" in America. I believe it was voted like "second best" or something like that in some semi-recent analysis/award thing for main streets in the US. They're always striving to make it better and better, so every year there are more and more improvements. We even have a live web cam that lets you see the middle of the main street area.

Posted by: Mipsus | Jul 28, 2009 10:04:16 AM

This story goes naturally with that dessert treat:


Posted by: Randee | Jul 27, 2009 11:33:54 PM

OH! This is important! Because for those of us in Oregon and Washington, that means Walla Walla Onion Rings are back in season at Burgerville!

Posted by: Mary Sue | Jul 27, 2009 12:30:43 PM

I cannot think of caramel without thinking of...

Posted by: Flautist | Jul 27, 2009 2:12:32 AM

This might help :>


Posted by: Rocketboy | Jul 26, 2009 10:15:32 PM

I cannot thing of onions without thinking of this song.

Doubly so when they are caramelized. Via cooking or dipping.

Posted by: Rocketboy | Jul 26, 2009 10:13:00 PM

Try a Maui onion from Kula!
Raw? No problem! Sweet as can be! Last year, I found them at Harris Teeter's in Falls Church, VA, but this year they're a no show.

Posted by: Virginia | Jul 26, 2009 4:58:24 PM

I lived in Walla Walla for a year the best thing there for me was the local asparagus

@ .39 cents a pound I had it all the time and it was gooooooooood

Posted by: fritz | Jul 26, 2009 4:56:00 PM

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